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Internal communication grows up
25 May, 2012 - 07:27
Starting in September a new course will be available at Lancashire Business School: MSc in Internal Communication Management.
By Sophia Cheng
Internal communication is facing an “identity crisis” says Kevin Ruck, co-founder of The PR Academy who is also studying for a PhD in Internal Communications.
“At the moment the problem that the industry faces is the lack of understanding about what value it brings to the organisation,” he points out. Other functions with established academic credentials like HR & Marketing are going to “eat our lunch” and we risk IC being absorbed by other areas if it doesn’t establish itself as a specialist area in its own right, Ruck feels.
But is there a demand for post-graduate academic study in Internal Communications?
Dr Mary Welch, Senior Lecturer at Lancashire Business School, believes professionals are crying out for this level of theory. More than 80 professionals surveyed showed a demand for further study of internal communication based on theory.
“People who are excellent tactically are beginning to want to operate more strategically, they want to base communications campaigns on a body of knowledge and think differently about internal communication,” Welch explains.
Steve Doswell, Chief Executive of the IoIC, believes that “beyond setting standards of practice and assessing its practitioners against them, [the internal communication] profession needs structures to enable the boundaries of insight and knowledge to be extended.”
Further academic study has helped Kevin Ruck in his day job to “think laterally." He says it gives him "an ability to be innovative" because the process of taking a higher level qualification in itself leads him to become a more critical thinker. "It enables me to go beyond just being a master of tactics to become a more trusted advisor at board level."
Ruck continues, “I would like to get to a point where internal communication is seen as so crucial that it’s a core CEO level skill. It is as important as balancing the balance sheet, and managing operations; if you put people first the rest will follow.”
He believes that “without a higher level of qualification in internal communication senior managers are left with the impression that it’s not a serious subject.”
“I would even go so far as to say it’s actually being held back by people who don’t believe that academic qualifications are valid," Ruck says.
Enter the MSc in Internal Communications Management.
Starting in September a new course will be available at Lancashire Business School. A definitive sign that the profession is maturing, the course focuses on developing “critical understanding of internal communication management from both a theoretical and practical perspective” and is aimed at current practitioners. We spoke to Dr Mary Welch, course leader, who brought the qualification into fruition.
SC: How long has this course been in the making?
MW: While studying for a PhD in internal communication and teaching full time, I was researching some fascinating material, which I started introducing into my teaching. Firstly at undergraduate level, by introducing a half module - and students kept coming back for more. The half module grew into a full module and then it became a module on a Master’s level course. The feedback was very positive and I know that we could have delved much deeper if it weren’t for time constraints. That got me to thinking whether it could constitute an entire Master’s in its own right.
I guess it really came in to being at discussions with colleagues at the Lancashire business school at the end of 2010. There’s a whole bureaucratic process you have to go through before you validate a course so in the interim period I was able to do a survey of 87 communications professionals, asking them what curricular topics they would be interested in and how they wanted to study. The results were very interesting and helped shaped the course drawing insight from what professionals were interested in. So far it’s had an interesting development history.
SC: What makes it an MSc? As opposed to an MA?
MW: In actuality there is no official separate definition of those two. The Master’s course is developed under an academic framework developed by the QAA and they have benchmarks for master’s course but they don’t have a distinction between an MSc and an MA. There is a tradition that business schools Master’s are generally MSc. However within humanities type schools you get MA’s. An MSc seems to be to be a more relevant name for the course, participants will be able to better evaluate and access the impact of internal communication and I think that reflects a social science base for the course.
SC: How can the course enhance a communicator's skills?
MW: At its most fundamental level, studying at master’s level contributes to a person’s own intellectual development and capacity.
It’s something I’ve found in my own career and further study in the industry, there was a personal stretching and I think that benefits anyone who wants to progress in their career.
The course also enhances specific skill areas; I’m not talking about the everyday skills of the communicator but the understanding of techniques, theory and models so that participants can apply them to analyse and address communications issues and problems. That in turn will help them to devise internal communication objectives and strategies and develop them in different ways, informed by underpinning theories.
Another key thing, and I know it’s something internal communicators really grapple with, is the skill of evaluating the effect of internal communication; to be able to assess the impact of communication on organisational effectiveness and to be able to articulate that in a way that colleagues in other disciplines can understand and respect. It’s about articulating the credibility.
SC: Who is the course aimed at?
MW: It’s principally aimed at people working in internal communication currently; they might be at different levels but most likely those who have been practising communication for a couple of years, who want to learn more about why one communications campaign works with one group of staff and why it doesn’t necessarily work as well with another group. Why one part of the organisation is broadly satisfied with communication, while other areas aren’t; why there are different perceptions within the organisation.
We may also have people in associated disciplines, like HR, who have an interest in communications and perhaps those in external communications looking to move across to internal communications.
When I was a communication professional I went on as many training courses as possible to try and develop skills in different areas. They were incredibly useful and every course was invaluable and I took a lot from them.
SC: How does it differ from the other shorter courses available?
This course is different, it is at Master’s level, and it has a focus on developing intellectual capacity, which shorter courses don’t do. There is also an emphasis on developing Master’s level knowledge and understanding which students can apply to their own personal practice. Developing insight informed by research which is at the forefront of the industry; there are literally hundreds of academic journals publishing articles on internal communication, which as a practitioner, you seldom have access to but as a student of university, there is immediate access to our library resources and range of relevant journals.
SC: Can a student working full time really balance the workload?
MW: It is demanding, it is intense and people who come on these courses make a huge commitment of their own personal time. Talking to students it can’t really be done unless you can get aside 10 hours a week to your studies at a minimum. But the way the course is organized people can do the standard pattern, 3 modules a year or they can take 1 module a semester and do it over a longer period. It can fit around peoples’ ability to commit time. Typically people seem to manage 3 modules a year.
We find, of course, communicators well used to juggling lots of different tasks so they are particularly well suited at coping with the demands of this course.
SC: What are the level of those interested in enrolling?
MW: Academically speaking we’re generally looking at people who have done a BA degree. However, if someone can demonstrate they have been working at a senior level then we might be able to consider their achievements in lieu of a Bachelor’s degree.
At a career level, the results of the survey show we’re looking at people mid-career, 3-5 years experience, looking to move ahead at the next stage. Those looking to work at a higher level, or those looking to perform at their current level more effectively. We also get students from crossover disciplines. We would expect senior people who are engaged at boardroom conversations and particularly people who are in dialogue at senior management level who are looking for ways to articulate the demands and needs of internal communication in a new way.
I had a meeting with Steve Doswell from the IoIC; he articulated the need for internal communication being able to come to the boardroom table and speak the language of those around the table with MBA’s. At the moment, I think there is a barrier to that. It’s about being able to articulate ideas about internal communication.
SC: Is there a demand for this level of theory?
MW: Yes, in many ways I think people in the profession are crying out for it. The survey really validates it; the demand for topics based on theory was very encouraging. People who are excellent tactically are beginning to want to operate more strategically; they want to base communications campaigns on a body of knowledge and think differently about internal communication.
SC: What does the qualification mean for the internal communication industry?
MW: I think it’s another step in having the industry recognized as a profession in its own right. It’s another step helping the internal communication area being seen as a specialist and important area within communications as a whole. I think there’s been a lot of interest from senior managers and chief executives around employee engagement and it’s a real opportunity for communicators to make the link to internal communication.
SC: With this new qualification, where do you see internal communication in 10 years time?
MW: I envision more internal communication pros on senior management teams contributing to strategic developments within organisations, for professionals involved in internal communication to have greater respect from colleagues and greater acknowledgement of their specialist knowledge. With the dissertation involved in the Master’s course, I hope in 10 years time there’ll be hundreds of people who will have undertaken rigorous research in internal communication and contributed to the discipline.
Find out more about the course here.
Dr Mary Welch will be joining us on SimplyTV next week to discuss the new course in more detail. Register here.
Pictured at right: Dr Mary Welch, senior lecturer at Lancashire Business School with Kevin Ruck, co-founder of the PR Academy and a PhD student researching internal communication measurement at the University of Central Lancashire.
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